Awards Radar had a recent opportunity to speak to John El Manahi, the production designer on Spinning Gold, available in theaters starting March 31.
Spinning Gold is a biopic following 1970s record producer Neil Bogart, co-founder of Casablanca Records, the most successful independent record company of all time. For the movie, John designed and constructed sets covering the events from 1968 to 1978.
In the interview, he chatted about his approach to creating designs for the biopic, easter eggs that fans can spot in the movie, and building some iconic sets, including KISS’ iconic concert, which resulted in the album Alive!
For Spinning Gold, you had to recreate multiple real-life venues and events. What was the research process like?
As the story was told from the perspective of Neil Bogart’s memory, I was lucky that Tim Bogart provided many of Neil’s personal archives. Except for the Casablanca offices, I didn’t feel the focus needed to be on recreating the venues and the locales verbatim. My goal was to recreate album covers and iconic moments from the time. For the concert re-creations, I got as close as possible to the musical instruments, stage set up, costuming, and lighting. The Casablanca offices were re-created by looking at photographs and magazine articles. The rest was done through usual research methods of gathering and vetting photographs from the internet and books.
You also worked with Neil Bogart’s son on the film Tim Bogart. What was that collaboration like?
We immediately hit it off personally and creatively. I knew how much this project meant to him, and he knew how passionate I was about creating music and this world. We had a creative shorthand between cinematographer Byron Werner and us. We loved the same movies, the music was pivotal to our adolescence, and visually Tim trusted me to get the details right. Although the shoot was logistically very hard, Tim and I always remained fixed on the end goal and never stopped collaborating. It was one of the best creative relationships in my career. The high quality we were able to achieve under the limitations we had is miraculous. That speaks to the clarity of the ideas that came out of our collaboration.
How do you decide where and how to place easter eggs in your designs?
Well, I try not to be obvious about it. I’d say there’s an intention to put subtext and clues wherever they seem natural. For example, I created the wood wainscoting in the Hawkins church set in a KISS lightning bolt “S” pattern. I had the scenic artists stain a few lighter and darker to separate them. Anyone looking won’t notice it immediately and obviously. Should anyone see it, especially a KISS fan, I think they would find it cool and amusing. There are things like that throughout the movie.
There is a musical number towards the end, and we see our characters move from set to set. How did you decide on the order of the sets, and what was the process of turning separate sets into one like?
This set came about in the final few days of production. It wasn’t scripted. Tim asked me if I could create a Broadway Musical for the end of the movie! I wasn’t surprised by sudden changes or spontaneous ideas. I always gave these things as much thought as possible. So, the idea was to start in Neil’s office, go out into Casablanca’s office, across to Hawkins church, and end up out the doors and onto the concert stage. This was dictated primarily by the geography of the sets on the stage we used. I removed part of the Casablanca office and created a walkway to connect it to the church. I used set dressing from other sets to make it seem like a collage/reprise of the story. It came together beautifully. I’m very proud of it. Tim was over the moon, and it made me really happy.
Historical events, live performances, easter eggs – what was the most challenging thing or set to ‘figure out’ practically?
The creative aspect was never the problem. The biggest challenges were the lack of time, the budgetary restrictions, and the post-COVID supply chain breakdowns. I had very little time to put everything together. The space we built in couldn’t even be called a stage. But it was all we had, so a lot of unaccounted resources and labor went to making that space usable for our large-scale sets. Right after COVID, we couldn’t get lumber and hardware easily, so we had to repurpose lumber and find creative solutions to problems we normally wouldn’t have to put much thought into. My team and the entire crew really deserve the credit. Our art director, Marie Wagner, was a genius. Construction coordinator, Danny Rovira, was always ready to develop smart solutions. Charge scenic, David Boyd had a fantastic team that moved really fast. Our cooperation and commitment allowed everyone to work together to overcome all the challenges I spoke of.